Time to pull the plug on the Northstar Commuter Rail.
You have to wonder how much worse things need to get when it comes to the Met Council’s mismanagement of a Metro Transit system that’s nothing short of a national embarrassment. Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle oversees the most crime-ridden light rail system in the country, as detailed in the last issue of Thinking Minnesota. The biggest public works project in state history, the Southwest Light Rail Transit line — still under construction — has come to define boondoggle under Zelle, doubling from $1.25 billion to $2.7 billion in cost while lagging nearly a decade behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the Met Council czar also heads one of the nation’s worst-performing commuter rail lines, Northstar, which runs from Big Lake to Target Field. Compared with similar lines, it has the lowest ridership and highest taxpayer subsidy per passenger.
The per-passenger subsidy for every ride on the Northstar Commuter Rail catapulted from $19 per passenger in 2019 to $173 in 2021 — an increase of 800 percent following a devastating decline in ridership post-COVID. But then, what do you expect from an operation that barely manages to take in $500,000 a year in passenger fares, while spending up to $18 million to get riders where they’re going?
In fact, Northstar has never been on track since opening for business in late 2009, even in the best of times. The $320 million train line fell short of passenger projections out of the gate, never drawing the 897,000 riders planners promised for the first year, much less any year since. At its peak of popularity, Northstar nearly notched 800,000 boardings in 2017 and 2019, before plummeting to 50,000 passengers in 2021, followed by 77,000 riders last year.
In an act of desperation, the Met Council cut service to just two roundtrips on weekdays only, ending weekend trains for Twins games and special events, which previously accounted for about one-third of ridership. “Ridership has been slow to rebound, especially among traditional commuters,” according to a new Met Council study focusing on Northstar’s bleak future.
While Northstar limps along, other commuter rail lines across the country have steadily bounced back. The Met Council report admitted that “many of Northstar’s peer agencies seem to have stronger prospects for recovering from the pandemic than Northstar…most of Northstar’s peers are actively planning to expand and improve their commuter rail service…” Our own analysis shows that 2022 ridership on Northstar remained at just 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while every other peer line identified by the Met Council regained substantially higher shares of ridership — ranging from 23 percent in San Diego to 83 percent in New England.
“That’s a significant challenge when we have a service that costs as much and just isn’t generating the level of ridership that it used to,” said Met Council’s Cole Hiniker in discussing the $175,000 study’s findings in March. “Add on top of that the fact that the actual ridership projections for the corridor were much higher when it was built and justified for the funding.”
Northstar’s rock-bottom ridership numbers have only strengthened the resolve of the Anoka County Board in an increasingly bitter standoff with the Met Council over footing the bill for the county’s share of the line’s substantial operating subsidy. This spring, the board’s finance committee recommended no payment whatsoever given Northstar’s dismal ridership record.
“The revenues are $500,000, the expenses are $18 million,” said Anoka County Commissioner Jeff Reinert at a March board meeting on Northstar funding. “If McDonald’s was running a business that way, they would give away 35 hamburgers for every one they sold and that’s ridiculous.”
Since the pandemic, Anoka County commissioners have refused to pay the full amount billed by Metro Transit on the grounds that fewer trains and riders should result in reduced service costs for the agency’s partners. The county got its bill reduced from $6.2 million to $4.5 million in 2020, but has refused to pay more than $1.95 million per year since. A tense April meeting between commissioners and Zelle to resolve their differences went nowhere.
“If they want to go legal, I told them I have plenty of attorneys standing by, so you let us know,” Anoka County Board Chairman Matt Look said in an interview. “When they unilaterally reduce trips by 71.4 percent, that’s on them.”
Two years ago, the Anoka County Board chairman at the time called for Northstar to be mothballed in favor of an express bus line.
“A decade-plus is more than enough to see that Northstar is not the right public transit option for our communities — it’s underused and oversubsidized,” Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte wrote in the Star Tribune. “Shut it down and stop the bleeding.”
It’s generally accepted that a shutdown would be contingent on negotiating a waiver exempting the Met Council from repaying federal funding, anywhere from $75 to $160 million. Yet, in a last-ditch effort to save Northstar, DFL members in control of the legislature doubled down. They authorized yet another study on the feasibility of extending the failed line to St. Cloud, while allowing a GOP-backed provision requiring analysts to examine shuttering Northstar once and for all.
“Northstar has never met expectations and it’s losing more money than we ever dreamed of,” said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, a longtime proponent of eliminating Northstar. “It’s totally appropriate for the legislature to seriously examine terminating the operation of Northstar. Even some transit advocates seem to realize it’s worthy of studying.”
By every measure, it’s well past the time for legislators to get on board with pulling the plug on the Northstar Commuter Rail.